A guide to sustainable Scottish seafood

  • The Larder
  • 17 September 2010
A guide to Scotland's more eco-friendly fish

Fish and shellfish rank among our most lauded produce, but there are issues of sustainability and less confidence generally in how to handle fish in the kitchen. With Seafood Scotland and chef Kevin MacGillivray, we offer a handy guide to recognising, understanding and cooking some of Scotland’s best species.


The North Atlantic herring fishery takes place in spring and the North Sea fisher in late summer, when fish gather in large shoals to spawn.

Once the core of the Scottish fishing industry, herring stocks came near to collapse in the 1970s and are now monitored carefully to ensure that they are sustainable. The two fisheries have achieved Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification.

Herring is an oil-rich fish that’s full of omega-3 fatty acids. Fresh herring is best in late spring and autumn, though it’s also popular all year round in its smoked form, as kippers.

‘Herring fillets are delicious coated in oatmeal and shallow-fried in a little oil or butter, then served with mustard,’ says Kevin MacGillivray.


Mackerel is the most valuable pelagic (open-sea) fish species in Scotland, worth around £65 million per annum. It is caugh mainly by large trawlers, with a small amount of hand-lining. The stocks fished by Scottish vessels have all achieved MSC certification.

Fresh mackerel is available from January to March and October to November and is a popular smoked product all year round. It’s another fish that’s full of omega-3 fatty acids.

'You can’t beat a fresh whole mackerel either grilled or barbecued. Make sure the fish is gutted, then simply score the skin and cook on both sides until it is crisp, then serve with horseradish sauce,’ says MacGillivray.


Haddock is the most important whitefish species in Scotland and is fished all around the coast. It is available all year round, but is in best condition after May Catches are worth more than £32 million each year. Haddock caught in the North Sea should achieve MSC certification in autumn 2010.

‘Haddock are really versatile fish – dipping them in batter for fish and chips is just one option. Try grilling fillets for a few minutes with a dab of butter and lemon juice, or top them with breadcrumbs mixed with cheese for a crunchy finish. Bake them in a tomato, cream or cheese sauce, dip them in seasoned flour and shallow fry.’


Megrim, a lesser known flatfish, is a good alternative to lemon sole being similar in taste and texture. It’s one of the most commonly landed flatfish in Scotland yet much of the catch still heads off to Spain where it’s very popular. Stocks of megrim are plentiful in summer months. To ensure that they are sustainable, megrim is subject to a minimum landing size of 20cm and also to catch limits.

‘Ask your fishmonger to source megrim, then get him to fillet it. This delicate fish is good with strong flavours. Try grilling it for a few minutes with a pesto topping. Fillets are also good wrapped around a piece of salmon, dotted with butter and baked for ten minutes.’


Hake is also popular with the Spanish, Portuguese and Italians. It is a member of the cod family and swims in deep water. It has a long, slender body and is good for cutting into steaks. The flesh is quite soft, but firms up on cooking.

Northern European stocks have been subject to recovery plans that include catch and fishing effort controls. Scottish stocks are now robust and being fished sustainably.

‘Hake has a mild flavour and few bones so is very good in a fish soup, casserole or tagine. Layer it with olives, onions, cherry tomatoes and pickled lemons, add seasoning and a dash of wine and cook for half an hour in the oven.’


Most native mussels are farmed in Scottish sea lochs, an operation involving mussel spores settling naturally on ropes suspended from buoys or floating frames. Once attached they grow for two to three years to reach harvest size. They receive no feed, relying on plankton in the water and, as a result, are a very healthy, natural product.

Relatively inexpensive and available all year round, live mussels can be stored wrapped in a damp cloth in the fridge for a day or two.

‘Wash the mussels, pull off any thin threads (beard) and discard shells that do not close when tapped. Cook them in garlic butter, with onions and a splash of white wine, or with tomatoes, onions and herbs, for 3–4 minutes until they are all open.’


Scallops live on sandy, gravel seabeds and are fished either with dredges (95 per cent) or hand-dived (5 per cent). There’s no taste difference between the two, although the size, quality and texture can vary.

New dredge designs make scallop fishing more environmentally friendly, with less seabed contact, while seabed mapping technology helps fishermen to avoid sensitive areas and protect vulnerable habitats. The minimum landing size is 100–110mm across the shell. If you find whole scallops difficult to shuck, ask your fishmonger to do it for you or buy ready-prepared scallops.

‘Don’t overcook scallops! Pan-fry them in a little rapeseed oil until just translucent Finish with a knob of butter and a squeeze of lemon, and serve.’


The brown crab is the most common crab species in Scotland. It’s used most often for dressed-crab salads and sandwiches. Dressing a crab involves combining the rich brown meat from the body of the crab with the plainer white meat of the claws, together with seasoning and lemon juice. The white meat can also be eaten picked from the claw shells.

Licensed fishermen use creels (pots) to catch crab, which are subject to a minimum landing size of 140mm shell width in Scotland. The catch is taken alive back to shore, where it may be stored in seawater tanks until needed.

‘Make a stunning crab tart using. a mixture of brown and white crab meat, a small can of sweetcorn, 4–6 eggs, 2oz Gruyère cheese and a small pot of cream. Pour into a pastry case and cook for 30 minutes at 180C.’

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